Books

Montaigne – Essays


This wasn’t my favourite philosophical work ever, but then Montaigne himself says when introducing the book that it’s essentially just a collection of his thoughts and isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. Still, there were a few bits that I’d like to think about further.

It is only our words which bind us together and make us human.

Happiness in life… may never be attributed to any man until we have seen him act out the last scene in his play, which is indubitably the hardest. In all the rest he can wear an actor’s mask… But in that last scene played between death and ourself there is no more feigning.

When the imagination is vehemently shaken it sends forth darts which may strike an outside object.

It is his soul that a wise man should withdraw from the crowd, maintaining its power and freedom freely to make judgements, whilst externally accepting all received forms and fashions.

Learned we may be with another man’s learning: we can only be wise with wisdom of our own.

He should be able to do anything but want to do only what is good.

Callicles says in Plato that, at its extremes, philosophy is harmful; he advises us not to go more deeply into it than the limits of what is profitable; taken in moderation philosophy is pleasant and useful, but it can eventually lead to a man’s becoming vicious and savage, contemptuous of religion and of the accepted laws, an enemy of social intercourse, an enemy of our human pleasures, useless at governing cities, at helping others or even at helping himself – a man whose ears you could box with impunity.

There is no victory unless you subjugate the minds of the enemy and make them admit defeat.

It is reason and wisdom that take away cares, not places affording wide views over the sea.

It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place: we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession.

So we must bring [the soul] back, haul her back, into our self.

Withdraw into yourself, but first prepare to welcome yourself there.

And perhaps my favourite passage, because I feel it can be so easily applied to all sorts of areas of life:

When King Pyrrhus was planning to cross over into Italy his wise counsellor Cyneas… asked him, ‘Well now, Sire, what end do you propose in planning this great project?’ ‘To make myself master of Italy,’ came his swift reply. ‘And when that is done?’ ‘I will cross into Gaul and Spain.’ ‘And then?’ ‘I will go and subjugate Africa.’ ‘And in the end?’ ‘When I have brought the whole world under my subjection, I shall seek my repose, living happily at my ease.’ Cyneas then returned to the attack: ‘Then by God tell me, Sire, if that is what you want, what is keeping you from doing it at once? Why do you not place yourself now where you say you aspire to be, and so spare yourself all the toil and risk that you are putting between you and it?’

I love this sentiment. It fits so perfectly into so many areas of life. Business, for instance. “I will take over EVERYTHING and be better than ALL the competition and make ALL THE MONEY!” “Why?” “So that then I can do what I actually want  to do.” Well, why not just do that now, and see where it gets you? This is something I have never understood, but I suppose in our overtly capitalist society it’s difficult to take a step back and say, you know what? I’m not actually interested in making shed-loads of cash. I’m interested in doing the things that make me come alive, devoting my life to things I really care about; and if that means I only just about scrape together enough to survive, then so be it. Because I’ll be happy within myself – the soul at peace, as Montaigne exhorts earlier on in his Essays.

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